The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Closing of the Saudi Elite

You may have heard that Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi recently went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and hasn’t been seen since. The Turkish government claims that he was killed, cut into pieces, and those pieces were smuggled out of the country.

The BBC has published a short, off-the-record interview with Jamil Khashoggi, which is worth listening to.

According to Jamil, the country’s internal environment of fear is much greater than it has been in the past. People are arrested for what they say, for example, at a private dinner party; people who aren’t even dissidents, they may criticize privately, but not publicly.

He also mentions an economist who was arrested who was close to the royal family.

The result is an environment of fear: Khashoggi said that he didn’t expect to be able to go back to Saudi Arabia. It is also, and this tracks with everything else we’ve seen, an environment where only one man is making all the decisions: The Crown Prince.

Disagree with him, even in private, and you risk arrest, and possibly much worse.

Mohammad Bin Salman wants, it is clear, to be a dictator. He wishes to be the only center of power in the country. This was clear when he did his sweeping hotel arrests last year, which included important officials and even family members. The richer members are reputed to have had to pay ransom to leave. Others are said to have been tortured to death.

Of course, such accounts have not been corroborated, but I find them credible.

So Khashoggi, in this clip, complains that every couple of months there is an announcement of a multi-billion dollar project and it’s never been discussed by anyone except the Crown Prince.

One-man rule.

I don’t have a mandate for Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t run well before this, in my opinion (sitting on that much oil meant it didn’t have to be), but the actions Bin Salman is taking, quite irrespective of his despotism, don’t appear to be very smart. He’s selling off income producing crown-jewel state organizations, he failed to bring Qatar to heel with his siege and pushed it into the Turkish and Iranian camps, and his Yememi war is a bleeding ulcer and terrible war crime which has accomplished little to nothing.

The Saudis know there is a transition off oil coming, and they’re trying to deal with it, and frankly, Bin Salman appears to be fumbling it. He is even less competent than the people who came before him, but wants all the power.

I said some time back that I expected Saudi Arabia to  collapse within 15 to 20 years. I see no reason to change that forecast.

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Red Lines


“A Single Death Is a Tragedy…”; Saudi Edition


  1. Herman

    Perhaps these authoritarian states are not as strong as was previously thought. Recently the big emphasis has been on the crisis of liberal democracy. Apparently protests are also common in China and a possible sign of social stress.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Protests have been common in China for ages. I actually see it as more of a “we’re industrializing” thing. People are tough, used to hard physical labor, not scared of a fight, and there has been tons of shoving people off their land.

    That said, actual free societies, when running well, always out-perform despotisms. It’s not even close.

  3. Tom W Harris

    “The Saudis know there is a transition off oil coming, and they’re trying to deal with it”

    Why can’t we do that?

  4. @Tom W Harris
    Because we don’t know there’s a transition coming. We don’t want there to be a transition coming, and so we do not see a transition coming. We will not see the transition coming when it squashes us flat. We will not know what it was that squashed us.

  5. those who think that nikki haley has some decency (more than trump, for example, despite her willingness to serve him and praise him) have suggested that her abrupt resignation announcement (the announcement is abrupt, not the resignation) might have to do with disagreement with trump about whether or to what extent to complain to saudi arabia about their murder of kashoggi

    this is missus charley’s opinion – she thinks i am too cynical on occasion, whereas i believe she may be too sunny in her view sometimes

  6. Webstir

    Wasn’t Mistah Charlie a slave owner who sent his Uncle Tom servant out to blast his shotgun at the slaves holding their traditional religious ceremonies out in the woods?

    Robert Hunter was a genius

  7. S Brennan

    Ever notice that when somebody wants to be nasty they refer to their actions as “reform”.

    Wage reform, means a cut in wages; labor reforms mean, longer hours; pension reform means working ’til one is almost dead, [or better yet, dead]…you get the idea, it’s all Orwellian doublespeak. We should all learn to laugh at the speaker who uses the word “reform”.

    “Reform”, as it is used by the media, has nothing to do with it’s dictionary definition, so when the media refer to Bin Salman as a “reformer” we should just laugh derisively at the broadcaster/newspaper. Sadly, the only people who seem to laugh at media doublespeak are “deplorables”.

  8. generic

    I don’t think the Saudis fear the oil transition. We’ll use the last drops of fresh water to extract the last dregs of oil. They might just be running out of the stuff. I remember hearing that their reserve figures are wonky as early as 2006ish. The idea was big on Peak Oil sites. A lot of things make a kind of sense if you look at it that way. They tried to grab Qatar that has access to a lot of gas fields that are still in development. Yemen, that presumably still has vast untapped resource wealth. First the idea to go public with Aramco and then the failure to follow through.
    And their big investment was the Bush clan, now decisively banished from power. Trump is rather blunt about the price of US support, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the finance guys around Obaa and Biden told them pretty much the same thing.

  9. Jib Halyard

    Perhaps these authoritarian states are not as strong as was previously thought.

    No they are not. I would have thought that was the single most obvious lesson of the last century.

  10. Synoia

    I expect Saudi Aramco going public to be a key point on the Saudi Collapse.

    Having looted the oil revenue over the last 80 years, the last gasp of the Saudi Monarchy is to loot professional investors by overstating the oil reserves remaining in Saudi Arabia.

  11. Peter

    Cui bono is a good question to ask before jumping to conclusions about this strange disappearance in Turkey. MBS certainly won’t gain anything but misery and rejection at home or abroad if he ordered the killing. He has many corrupt and powerful enemies in the House of Saud and this outrage could be a strike at him and his modernization plans. The KSA must become more economically open, transparent and socially moderate to attract the western investment they need to diversify their economy. Selling a 5% share of their oil industry, although the largest IPO in world history, isn’t a scam, no sane investor would buy into it without transparent and accurate data on their real researves.

  12. Hugh

    In 1950, the KSA had a population of 3.86 million. Today, it’s 33.1 million. The 2050 projection is 46.9 million. (From the International Database at the US Census)

    Its landmass is 830,000 sq miles (2,149,690 km2), but only 1.6% of this is arable land.

    The mix of oil, religious extremism, a feudal monarchy, and vast corruption has always meant that the KSA was a powder keg. Preservation of the monarchy has always been the one and only goal of the monarchy, no matter what it costs anyone else. The standard policy approach of the monarchy to this end has been the stereotype of gold or lead. You either buy off your enemies or you kill them. The assassination of King Faisal in 1975, the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the Khobar Towers attack in 1996, the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and the war in Yemen 2015 to present have all shown the instability of this system. In addition to this, the competency of the dictator kings has been declining and achieved a kind of exponential nadir in Mohammad Bin Salman. I agree with Ian’s assessment: 15 to 20 years tops. It was always an impossible amalgam, and the timeline could be ten years or less.

  13. different clue


    An early and strong proponent of the suspicion that KSA ( and others) was ( were) massively overstating the size of their oil reserves was an oil and energy affairs analyst named Matthew Simmons.
    He was often featured on The Oil Drum, among other places.

  14. different clue

    Matthew Simmons died too soon. Another oil analyst who died to soon was Ali Morteza Samsam Bakktiari. Here is an article about some things he wrote.

    Here is a little intro wikipedia entry about Ali Morteza Samsam Bakhtiari

  15. Chiron

    MBS is being backed by Trump and Netanyahu, this might explain his cavalier attitudes, the Saudi 2030 plan looks like more wishful thinking than anything based on Saudi economic reality.

  16. different clue

    It could be that the KSA Consulate in Turkey was secretly run by Prince Mohamad bin Sultan’s enemies and rivals. bin Sultan would not be smart enough to know about that or even suspect it if it were so. And if it were, they could have lured Mr. Khashoggi to the consulate and false-flag killed him there to pin the corpse on the Crown Prince. In this scenario . . . the assassins would still be Saudi. And non-Saudi lives mean nothing to a Saudi.

    The Saudis are a great big huge family. With all the most distant members they are numerous enough to be a “tribe”. In fact, I think they ARE a Tribe, the al Saud Tribe. And theirs is a Tribal Kingdom, established by hostile conquest of other Tribes and non-Nejdi regions. I gather that even within the Nejdi province zone, they had a rival tribe, the al Rashidis.
    They might well wish to see their old enemies the al Saud exterminated from existence and expunged from the face of the earth.

    Other NON-Nejdi parts of “Saudi” Arabia might well be satisfied with the termination of Nejdi rule and the rounding up and returning of all Nejdis and pro-Nejdi Arabians back into Nejdi Province, which they would then surround with minefields and triple-fence electrified poison-tipped razor wire. But since the Arabians are a kind and generous people, they might well throw some food in over the wire, and every now and then a bottle of bottled water too.

    Realistically, whatever follows KSA will be worse. The most likely follow-on would be an al Quaeda or an ISIS takeover. Al Quaeda would be more likely, being more rooted in the Wahhabi Saudi elite and already being right there on the ground. So we would end up with the Emirate of Wahhabi Arabia.

    The best of all possible outcomes would be the unlikely outcome whereby all the KSA provinces separate from eachother and al Quaeda is confined to Nejd Province, behind the sanitary minefields and electrified razor wire quarantine fence. Pray that the Eastern Province can become a stable and protected Client State of Iraq or Iran or both. That would be the only way to keep the remaining oil and its revenue away from al Quaeda and the Islamic Emirate of Wahabbistan.

  17. 33 million people on a plot of land that a generation ago could barely sustain a tenth of that strikes me as a harbinger: seven billion people on a ball of rock that can barely sustain one. Do the math.

  18. Hugh

    If you heard MBS speak for 5 minutes, it would be clear just how absurdly entitled he is. This is a guy who spent $300 million for a chateau for himself near Paris and blew $500 million on a superyacht, –and still congratulates his generosity toward “his” people. This is the same guy who started a senseless, brutal anti-shia jihad in Yemen three years ago which has killed thousands of civilians directly and tens of thousands more due to famine and disease. So no, Virginia, he would not hesitate to off a journalist and yes, he would do it precisely in this grisly, messy fashion to send a message to anyone anywhere who dared oppose/criticize him.

  19. Peter

    The KSA is the largest economy in the ME and seem able to increase their oil output dramatically when needed so I doubt they are going to face depletion soon. They are also starting to frack their tight gas reserves and that will free more oil for other domestic uses and export. They can buy all the food they need, grain from Russian growing bumper crops and the US growing corn production and they make their own water. Iran’s meddling in the ME is driving their huge military budget and that is probably their biggest challenge.

  20. Webstir

    “That said, actual free societies, when running well, always out-perform despotisms. It’s not even close.”

    Again, I come back to lies as a red line.
    Actual free societies that run well do so because of trust in the rule of law.
    I’m simply not going to enter into a deal with you if I can’t trust that the law will be there for me if you screw me over — unless, of course, I can do so at the end of a gun barrel.

    Despots, by definition, ARE the rule of law. But, only having to answer to themselves, their law is whimsical. MBS is a perfect example. As the KSA lies multiply, the trust exponentially erodes, leading to — the closing of the Saudi elite.

  21. And what would that minimum be?

    No, you’re not.

  22. Webstir

    Did you read it?
    That’s always a good starting point.
    In Saudi Arabia’s case, it wouldn’t be too big a stretch to assume it’s potable water.
    In the case of the entire world, it wouldn’t be too big a stretch to assume it’s potable water.

  23. It would be interesting if they figure out how to drink oil.

  24. Webstir

    Echoes of Marie Antionette …

  25. Peter

    The KSA uses Gulf water for oil recovery and uses the oil to generate electricity to desal more Gulf water to drink so they do drink an oil product.

  26. A1

    Given how wrong every pundit has been about the coming revolution is Saudi Arabia, my money is on Saudi Arabia outlasting:

    -The EU
    -The US

    One thing that is not factored into all this is the bulk of the population is okay with the way things are and want it maintained. “Games of Thrones” amongst the elite, whether Saudi Arabia or The US Supreme Court, are interesting but do not really matter to most peoples day to day lives.

  27. different clue


    So the question is . . . are the majority happy? How many Nejdis are unhappy that KSA is not Wahhabi enough? Are the Eastern Provincians happy? Are the Aisiris happy? Are the Hijazis happy? Etc.?

  28. That’s pretty weak tea, piter, you want to try again?

    I said “drink oil.” Let me know when you figure it out.

  29. different clue

    Well, what a silly alternative theory ” it might have been false-flag opponents hidden in the consulate who diddit” turned out to be. What a silly theory it must have been all along.

    Since the KSA leadership hasn’t moved to “clean house” at the Consulate, the “disappearance” of Mr. Khashoggi must have been precisely to their taste all along.

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